September 3, 2007

Tearooms, Labels, and Double Standards

Posted at 9:20 am (Pacific Time)

The events surrounding Senator Larry Craig’s resignation last week provide an opportunity for considering some social science insights about sex in public places, sexual orientation, denial, and prejudice.

The Tearoom Ritual: Solicitation vs. Entrapment

Laud Humphreys’ 1970 book, Tearoom Trade: Impersonal Sex In Public Places, provided the first systematic account of men who engage in sexual acts in public restrooms, colloquially known as “tearooms.” (The book was based on Humphreys’ doctoral dissertation in sociology at Washington University in St. Louis, and received the prestigious C. Wright Mills Award from the Society for the Study of Social Problems.)

As Laura Mac Donald noted in her Sunday New York Times Op-Ed piece, Humphreys’ research revealed that tearoom sex is a highly interactive ritual. The participants are just that — participants, who actively signal their interest with a variety of silent and subtle gestures that typically escape the awareness of unsuspecting restroom users. Participants are well aware of the danger of being arrested or attacked, and don’t try to force themselves on anyone. It’s a consensual ritual that excludes those who are unaware or unwilling.

All of which raises suspicions about the actions of both Sen. Craig and the undercover airport police sergeant who denied entrapping him. It’s difficult to imagine that anyone could inadvertently become involved in the tearoom ritual, or that a participant would persist in signaling another man without some indication of the latter’s willingness. As Laura Mac Donald commented in the Sunday Times, Humphreys’ findings

“suggest the implausibility not only of Senator Craig’s denial — that it was all a misunderstanding — but also of the policeman’s assertion that he was a passive participant. If the code was being followed, it is likely that both men would have to have been acting consciously for the signals to continue.”

“Gay” vs. “Homosexual”

If Sen. Craig was indeed a willing participant, is he gay? Homosexual? These words have been used interchangeably in speculation about Sen. Craig’s sexuality. Although they are often equated in popular parlance, they have somewhat different connotations.

Homosexual usually refers in a purely descriptive manner to same-sex desires and sexual behaviors, whereas gay refers to an individual’s social identity as a member of a larger culture of men and women with similar identities. Some writers have also distinguished between “a homosexual” (one who simply engages in same-sex activity or wishes to do so) and a gay person (one who embraces his or her sexuality as a defining feature of the self, and identifies with the larger community of gay and lesbian people).

Prof. Humphreys’ research showed that many men who engage in tearoom sex are heterosexually married (54% in his sample) and don’t identify as gay, or even homosexual.

Thus, absent any affirmation of the label from Sen. Craig, characterizing him as gay seems off the mark. His consistent antigay stances throughout his political career, coupled with his public self-identification as a heterosexual, are not consistent with being gay.

This doesn’t preclude him having same-sex desires or engaging in homosexual behavior. Maybe he is secretly “a homosexual” or maybe his private thoughts and behaviors qualify him as “a bisexual.” But neither status is a part of his public identity.

Denial: Conscious vs. Unconscious

Armchair psychoanalysis is a popular sport, so it’s not surprising to hear speculation that Sen. Craig has been in a psychological state of denial about his homosexuality. Maybe so, but anyone who hasn’t spoken directly with Sen. Craig about his innermost thoughts and feelings is not in a position to make this call.

There’s a much simpler explanation for his denial, namely, that the stigma attached to homosexuality remains strong throughout the United States, especially in places like Idaho. Awareness of that stigma motivates many heterosexuals to take steps to publicly establish that they’re not homosexual. They avoid gender nonconformity, don’t touch friends of the same sex, verbally assert their heterosexuality, and even perpetrate acts of hostility and violence against people whom they perceive to be gay. Closeted homosexuals sometimes engage in such conduct to protect their cover.

These actions aren’t the result of unconscious defense mechanisms. Rather, they are conscious strategies for avoiding the labels of gay and homosexual. We shouldn’t equate a public, fully voluntary and conscious denial that one is gay or homosexual with private self-deception or unconscious repression.

Heterosexual vs. Homosexual Transgressions

Why have Republican politicians reacted so differently to the actions of Sen. Craig and to those of Louisiana Sen. David Vitter, who recently admitted to having used the services of female prostitutes?

Some have explained the discrepancy in terms of pragmatic political considerations. Sen. Craig represents a reliably conservative state with a Republican governor (who will almost certainly appoint another Republican to take his place), whereas Sen. Vitter hails from a state with a Democratic governor. Thus, keeping Sen Vitter in office while dumping Sen. Craig represents a safe strategy for the Republicans.

I don’t doubt that such a calculus has played a role in shaping GOP reactions to recent events. However, we can’t discount the importance of sexual prejudice. Sen. Vitter’s conduct violated his marital vows and broke laws against prostitution but, for most heterosexuals, a man having sex with women doesn’t conjure up feelings of revulsion. Sen. Craig’s actions in the airport didn’t even result in sex and wouldn’t have involved prostitution, although they presumably would have broken his marriage vows. But they have evoked a much more negative reaction.

The difference, of course, is that Sen. Craig would have been having sex with a man, whereas Sen. Vitter’s indiscretions were with women. Moreover, Sen Craig was arrested in a public restroom, a setting that evokes thoughts of bodily elimination. The combination of male homosexuality and public toilets arouses the emotion of disgust in many heterosexuals, what is sometimes called “the ick factor.” Indeed, last Tuesday on MSNBC, presidential candidate Mitt Romney characterized Sen. Craig’s behavior as “disgusting.”

The ick factor is an interesting component of sexual prejudice, one that I’ll discuss in a future entry.

* * * * *

Relevant Reading: Public Sex/Gay Space, a book of essays reexamining Laud Humphreys’ Tearoom Trade was published in 1999 by the Columbia University Press (edited by William Leap).

Update: Dr. Karen Franklin’s “In The News” forensic psychology blog for September 4 has some more insights based on Laud Humphreys’ study.

Update (September 15): For another perspective, check out “If Larry Craig Were Gay” on YouTube.

Copyright © 2007 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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November 14, 2006

Do Beliefs About Choice Lead To Sexual Prejudice?

Posted at 3:34 pm (Pacific Time)

If we could convince Rev. Louis Sheldon that being gay isn’t a choice, would he stop attacking sexual minorities?

In an interview with The Jewish Week, the Christian Right leader recently acknowledged that he’d known about Rev. Ted Haggard’s homosexual behavior months before it was publicly disclosed:

” ‘Ted and I had a discussion,’ explained Sheldon, who said Haggard gave him a telltale signal [of his sexual attraction to men] then: ‘He said homosexuality is genetic. I said, no it isn’t. But I just knew he was covering up. They need to say that.’

Apart from raising questions about his complicity with Rev. Haggard’s ongoing deception, Rev. Sheldon’s comments illustrate a pattern that has been well-documented in the United States: In general, antigay heterosexuals assert that homosexuality is a choice. By contrast, unprejudiced heterosexuals are likely to believe that sexual orientation is inborn or otherwise not chosen.

What, if anything, does this pattern mean for efforts to eliminate sexual prejudice?

It’s often assumed that a cause-and-effect relationship is operating here — that heterosexuals will become less prejudiced if they can be convinced that being gay isn’t a choice.

In fact, most gay people in the US don’t experience their sexual orientation as a choice. In my own empirical studies, I’ve found that the vast majority of gay men and most lesbians report having little or no choice in this regard. (I’ll discuss these data further in a future posting.)

Yet, the notion of organizing anti-prejudice campaigns around a “we-didn’t-choose-to-be-gay” theme sparks philosophical and political debate. Such arguments are outside my purview as a social scientist. Based solely on empirical research, however, this plan is problematic for several reasons.

First, many heterosexuals’ beliefs in this realm aren’t internally consistent. If someone regards homosexuality as a choice, you’d expect them also to believe gay people can change their sexual orientation. Conversely, those who think it isn’t a choice should believe that people can’t change. But the data only partly conform to these patterns.

In a 1999 national telephone survey I conducted, more than 1200 heterosexual adults were asked whether they believed being homosexual is something people choose for themselves or something over which they have no control. A bit later in the survey, they were asked their opinion about what proportion of gay people can stop being homosexual if they want to do so. Half were asked these questions about gay men, the other half were asked about lesbians.

Overall, 47% said homosexuality is something men choose for themselves, and 57% expressed this belief about female homosexuality.

As expected, most respondents who said being gay is not a choice also believed that few (if any) gay people can stop being homosexual — roughly 72% expressed this opinion about gay men, and 76% about lesbians.

But it was a different story for those who said homosexuality is a choice. Only 50% of them believed most or all gay men can become straight, and only 43% expressed this opinion about lesbians. Many believed that fewer than half of homosexuals can change (27% said this about gay men, 34% about lesbians).

I’ve asked similar questions in subsequent surveys, with the same results: Many heterosexuals who believe being gay is a choice nevertheless say most gay people can’t choose to stop being homosexual. This contradictory pattern suggests that believing homosexuality is chosen might not be about facts or logic, at least for some people.

There’s another problem with the idea that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality isn’t chosen will reduce their sexual prejudice. Such a plan will only work if beliefs about choice are actually the basis for heterosexuals’ attitudes toward sexual minorities. However, the data about choice beliefs and sexual prejudice are largely correlational, which means they don’t necessarily reveal a causal relationship. Even if one factor does cause the other, we can’t be certain which comes first — beliefs about choice or prejudice.

The chain might actually begin with prejudice. After all, conservative Christians base their attitudes on the argument that homosexuality is sinful. To be a sin, homosexuality has to be a choice. Otherwise their antigay hostility looks less like moral rectitude and more like bigotry. So perhaps many heterosexuals with antigay attitudes say homosexuality is chosen as a way of justifying their preexisting prejudice.

Research relevant to this hypothesis has been conducted by Dr. Peter Hegarty, a Stanford-trained social psychologist who is on the faculty at the University of Surrey in England.

Dr. Hegarty observed that beliefs about choice and the immutability of sexual orientation weren’t as closely linked with public attitudes toward sexual minorities in England as in the USA. In a series of studies, he found that beliefs about choice were strongly correlated with sexual prejudice among American students, but not among English students.

In further data analyses, he divided the participants into two groups: (1) those who perceived statements that homosexuality is unchosen and unchangeable to signify tolerant attitudes toward sexual minorities, and (2) those who didn’t perceive such a connection. He found that choice beliefs were correlated with prejudice only in the first group.

Dr. Hegarty interpreted his findings as indicating that heterosexuals may construct their beliefs about choice “to fit their sexual politics rather than the reverse.” Insofar as they understand beliefs about choice to express a particular political viewpoint (no choice = progay; choice = antigay), they use them for just that purpose. Some say homosexuality is chosen to express an antigay stance while others express a progay position by saying it’s not chosen.

Yet another possibility is that the choice-prejudice linkage might result from the causal influence of some third factor, such as heterosexuals’ personal contact with sexual minority people. In another survey I conducted in the early 1990s, I found that Whites (but, interestingly, not Blacks) harbored much less sexual prejudice and were much less likely to regard homosexuality as a choice if they personally knew one or more gay people. Presumably, those relationships reduced their prejudice and gave them an opportunity to learn their friend or relative’s ideas about the origins of her or his own sexual orientation.

In summary, we don’t yet know why beliefs about choice are correlated with sexual prejudice. One may cause the other, or perhaps both result from a third factor, such as personal contact with gay people. The data we have don’t support the notion that convincing heterosexuals that homosexuality is inborn or otherwise not a choice will cause them to be less prejudiced. If anything, it appears that stating a particular belief about choice may be a way of justifying one’s preexisting antigay or progay attitudes.

This is essentially the position that Rev. Sheldon took when he dismissed Rev. Haggard’s private comments about the genetic roots of sexual orientation as something “they need to say.” What he didn’t note is that, just as much and perhaps more, he and his followers “need to say” that homosexuality is a choice.

* * * * * *

Dr. Hegarty’s article, ” ‘It’s Not a Choice, It’s the Way We’re Built’: Symbolic Beliefs About Sexual Orientation In the US and Britain,” was published in 2002 in the Journal of Community and Applied Social Psychology, vol. 12, pp. 153-166.

For further discussion of Revs. Sheldon and Haggard, see Timothy Kincaid’s posting on ExGayWatch.com

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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October 11, 2006

Let’s Talk About It

Posted at 12:02 am (Pacific Time)

Happy National Coming Out Day.

October 11 is the day set aside every year to remind gay, lesbian, and bisexual people about the importance of coming out, and to remind heterosexual people how they can support their sexual minority family members and friends in living open, honest, and fulfilling lives.

This year, the Human Rights Campaign and PFLAG (Parents, Family, and Friends of Lesbians & Gays) have partnered in a campaign called Talk About It. As the title says, the goal is to encourage sexual minority women and men to discuss their experiences with their heterosexual relatives, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.

Toward that end, HRC and PFLAG have created a A Resource Guide To Coming Out, which provides information and advice for sexual minorities, and A Straight Guide to GLBT Americans, which is designed for heterosexuals who want to support and assist their gay, lesbian, and bisexual loved ones. Both guides are available on the HRC Web site.

This campaign gets it right — in many ways.

Coming out is tremendously important for sexual minority individuals. While concealing one’s sexual orientation can be highly stressful, being out of the closet is often associated with better mental and physical health. Not only does being open about one’s sexual orientation eliminate the need to be constantly vigilant and secretive, it also creates opportunities to get help and emotional support from significant others in the face of society’s prejudice against sexual minorities.

Moreover, coming out plays a major role in reducing sexual prejudice. For heterosexuals, knowing someone who is openly lesbian, gay, or bisexual often leads not only to a better relationship with that person, but also to more positive feelings and less prejudice toward sexual minorities in general. As I’ve discussed in previous posts, compared to other heterosexuals, straight people with gay and lesbian friends and close family members tend to be less prejudiced against all sexual minorities.

However, simply knowing that a friend or relative is gay, lesbian, or bisexual doesn’t necessarily reduce a straight person’s prejudice. It’s also critically important to talk openly. In my own research, I’ve found that the heterosexuals with the lowest levels of sexual prejudice are those who not only know someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, but have also spoken directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority.

But many sexual minority adults don’t discuss this aspect of their lives with family members, friends, or coworkers.

In a recent national survey, I found that a majority of lesbians and gay men in the US consider themselves to be out to their immediate family members. However, substantial numbers never speak about lesbian and gay issues with their parents or siblings. A similar pattern holds in their relationships with other relatives, coworkers, and straight acquaintances. Bisexual adults are even less likely to talk with straight people about their sexual orientation and how it affects their daily lives.

Of course, coming out can be risky, and talking about one’s sexual orientation is often difficult. Here’s where the HRC/PFLAG project is right on target. The Talk About It guides offer practical suggestions to assist sexual minorities and straight people alike in getting those conversations started.

So today, on this National Coming Out Day, do something positive to fight sexual prejudice. Have a conversation. Talk about it.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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September 26, 2006

The Race Card in Marriage Politics

Posted at 1:01 pm (Pacific Time)

On Monday, Senator George Allen (R-VA) publicly denied allegations that he frequently used racially offensive language back in his days as a University of Virginia football player. It was the most recent in a series of accusations of racial insensitivity made against Sen. Allen during his current reelection campaign.

The senator made the denial after holding a press conference with a group of pastors, most of whom were Black.

Buried in most reporting about the event was the main purpose of the press conference: to promote Virginia’s November ballot measure that would create a constitutional ban on legal recognition of same-sex couples.

Some observers will find it ironic that Sen. Allen piggy-backed his assertions that he’s not racially prejudiced onto an event whose focus was to promote discrimination against sexual minorities. Others won’t see any irony at all because they don’t put sexual prejudice on a par with racial prejudice.

Irony aside, Sen. Allen’s joint appearance with black clergy was politically shrewd. Not only might it help to counteract some of his own image problems, it also is likely to reinforce support for the constitutional amendment among black heterosexual Virginians.

While most of the US public opposes marriage equality for same-sex couples, opposition is stronger among African Americans than among Hispanics and non-Hispanic Whites. My own research suggests that the source of many black heterosexuals’ opposition to marriage equality is their moral condemnation of homosexual behavior: They are more likely than other racial and ethnic groups to regard same-sex sexuality and relationships as sinful, and this attitude strongly informs their opinions about marriage.

Capitalizing on this pattern, opponents of gay rights have targeted African American communities in their campaigns against marriage equality. Members of the clergy have often been enlisted to make salient the moral dimension of heterosexual Blacks’ attitudes, as was the case at Sen. Allen’s press conference.

The tactic may well be successful this year in Virginia, where a Mason-Dixon poll earlier this month showed the ballot measure was supported by 54% of likely voters, versus 40% who opposed it.

Advocates for sexual minority rights shouldn’t write off the African American community, however. Although most heterosexual Blacks don’t favor marriage equality, many support gay rights in other arenas. For example, strong majorities favor outlawing job discrimination based on sexual orientation and support hate crimes legislation.

One explanation for this seeming inconsistency is that marriage is closely linked with religion in the minds of many Americans, black and non-black alike, whereas job rights and hate crimes aren’t. Thus, attitudes toward the latter aren’t based on religious beliefs to the same extent as opinions about marriage. Given their history and their own experiences with prejudice and discrimination, many African Americans are strong supporters of antidiscrimination laws. However, that support currently doesn’t translate into support for marriage equality.

Sen. Allen’s press conference with black pastors may not help him avoid the political fallout from his recent campaign stumbles. But it exemplifies conservative Republicans’ potent strategy of appealing to heterosexual African Americans in their fight against marriage equality.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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September 24, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice #2: Allies

Posted at 12:56 pm (Pacific Time)

Last week, I argued we should base campaigns to eradicate sexual prejudice on methods we know will work. In that entry, my first on this topic, I focused on the importance of heterosexuals not only knowing someone who is lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but also talking directly with that person about what it’s like to be a sexual minority. Thus, the goal of getting gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to speak with loved ones about their experiences — making the connection between what happens to “gay people” in the abstract and what happens in one’s own life — should be the foundation of any anti-prejudice campaign.

In today’s entry, I’ll discuss a second building block in such a campaign: enlisting sympathetic and supportive heterosexuals, often called “allies,” to influence the attitudes of other heterosexuals.

Allies come from many demographic groups, but the largest and most consistently supportive segment of the population is heterosexual women. In study after study, heterosexual women — especially Latinas and non-Hispanic White women — express substantially less prejudice against sexual minorities than their male counterparts.

There are many reasons for the gender gap in sexual prejudice. For example, all else being equal, gay men and lesbians are more likely to come out to heterosexual women than to men, which fosters more favorable attitudes among females. (There is also a cyclical effect: heterosexual women’s more positive attitudes, in turn, make sexual minority individuals more likely to come out to them.) And many heterosexual males, feeling pressured to prove they’re “real men,” often do so by attacking what they perceive to be the antithesis of masculinity, namely, gay men.

Regardless of its underlying sources, the gender gap is real and anti-prejudice campaigns should use it. We can expect a dramatic reduction in discrimination, violence, and hostility toward sexual minorities if large numbers of heterosexual women effectively communicate a simple message to their straight husbands, boyfriends, sons, and fathers: “Sexual prejudice is wrong and I won’t tolerate it.”

What about male allies? Here are two strategies for locating heterosexual men to communicate the anti-prejudice message (especially to their straight male friends). First, recruit heterosexual men with gay friends and family members. Second, reach out to men in demographic groups that tend to have lower levels of sexual prejudice. These include men with college degrees, younger men, urban dwellers, political liberals, members of liberal religious denominations, and the nonreligious.

As with women allies, the men’s message to their friends and relatives should be that sexual prejudice is wrong and they won’t tolerate expressions of it.

To sum up thus far, a campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should harness the power of two key groups to change the attitudes of the people close to them: sexual minority individuals and heterosexual allies, especially women. I’ll expand further on these ideas in a future entry.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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September 19, 2006

Eradicating Sexual Prejudice: Installment #1

Posted at 2:24 pm (Pacific Time)

The continuing problems of hate crimes, discrimination, and hostility targeting sexual minorities make one thing evident: We need effective strategies for eradicating sexual prejudice. Exactly what form such strategies should take, however, is far from clear.

In this and future entries, I’ll highlight some promising ideas for reducing prejudice, based on data and theory from the social and behavioral sciences.

To begin, let’s ask what has been shown to work. There’s a fairly simple answer to this question. Research consistently shows that heterosexuals tend to be significantly less prejudiced against sexual minorities to the extent that they have a personal relationship with a gay man or lesbian.

It’s not enough simply to know someone who is gay, however. Rather, heterosexuals’ contact experiences are more likely to reduce their sexual prejudice when:

  • the gay person is a close friend or an immediate family member, rather than a distant relative, acquaintance, or stranger;
  • they know several gay or lesbian people, rather than only one;
  • they have talked openly with their friend or relative about what it’s like to be gay.

While data haven’t yet been collected to determine whether the same patterns hold for heterosexuals’ interpersonal contact with bisexual men and women, it seems reasonable to assume that they do.

There are many explanations for why personal relationships are so effective in reducing sexual prejudice. Certainly a key reason is that such relationships provide an instigation for the heterosexual person to change. Getting rid of one’s prejudices isn’t a quick or easy process. It involves learning new ways of thinking and acting, and can be challenging and uncomfortable. Most people don’t make personal changes like this unless they are strongly motivated to do so.

By coming out, gay men and lesbians give their heterosexual relatives and friends such motivation. When preserving a valued relationship means overcoming one’s sexual prejudice, many heterosexuals rise to the challenge. The gay friend or relative typically helps in this regard by providing information about sexual minorities and advice about how to act appropriately in novel situations. Perhaps most importantly, all of this happens within an ongoing relationship in which each party feels a strong emotional bond and sense of commitment to the other.

Of course, interpersonal contact doesn’t always reduce prejudice. Personal relationships may be less influential when a heterosexual’s prejudice has a strong foundation in religious or political ideology.

Nevertheless, the research data (not to mention the personal experiences of many sexual minority individuals) are clear and consistent in this regard. They strongly reinforce the value of coming out as a strategy for reducing hostility toward sexual minorities. Any campaign to eradicate sexual prejudice should build on this fact.

Copyright © 2006 by Gregory M. Herek. All rights reserved.

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